Never again to genocide... sort of

With Rwanda this week marking 20 years since its genocide, it is worth asking: Has the world learned anything?

Military court in Rwanda 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Military court in Rwanda 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With Rwanda this week marking 20 years since its 1994 genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Rwandan- Tutsis were killed in only 100 days, it is worth asking: Has the world learned anything? The phrase “never again” started with the Holocaust (though certainly there were pre-modern equivalents of genocide), but following more recent genocides in African Rwanda and Darfur in 2003 as well as European Srebrenica in 1995, (though there were others in-between that got less press coverage) many might say that the phrase has been continually cheapened.
In Rwanda’s main event commemorating its genocide, UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon said: “We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again’ again and again,” appearing to try to show determination.
But at a moment when as many as 150,000 have been killed in Syria’s civil war, with somewhere between one-third and one-half being civilians, his words sound more hopeless than anything else (though some might call Syria a case of mass atrocities and not genocide once the numbers reach a certain level the moral dilemmas of inaction overlap).
Has the world really learned nothing? Besides greater international education and awareness of genocide, all of the above 1990s and later genocides mentioned have led to war crimes tribunals – not something that happened in most historical cases.
Also, the 2002 founding of the International Criminal Court had created a permanent warning to countries and actors considering genocide, which is even stronger than ad-hoc tribunals.
Furthermore, there are the 1999 Kosovo and 2011 Libyan examples where US and NATO intervention have been credited by some with preventing mass atrocities – and potential genocide.
Especially after the intervention in Libya, many said that a new model for light, targeted but effective multilateral intervention had been achieved.
But then came Syria, where the world will not intervene, and at most the US might have been willing to intervene if chemical weapons were used (not if merely mass numbers of civilians were being bombed by aircraft.) Also, while the ICC has had some achievements, one of the clearest signs of its and the international community’s weak will for preventing genocide is that, in the case of Darfur, the ICC’s arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been ignored.
So observers say that at best the world has made very uneven progress.
Where is the fault line? There have been some cases, like Rwanda and Srebrenica, where those perpetrating genocide were brought to justice.
But this was dependent on the side representing the victims of the genocide eventually becoming the victors in a bigger war, as in Rwanda, or post-genocide international intervention, as with Srebrenica.
Kosovo and Libya also seem to demonstrate cases where the US and NATO were ready to pour military air power and the cost of employing that air power into preventing potential genocide.
But those cases were probably just an exception to a general “paralysis” by international powers – as occurred in the US in regards to Rwanda when US officials, in a famous news conference, adamantly refused to call the events a genocide so as to avoid committing to US intervention.
What paralyzes nations from preventing genocide when they, including the US, have essentially all committed to intervening if necessary under the Genocide Convention? The largest reasons listed by observers are the expending of power, cost and lack of identity.
Libya and Kosovo were relatively easy interventions in terms of expending of power and cost. All that was needed was air power, and the intervention could be fairly targeted with little risk to the West’s aircraft and at a relatively low cost.
However Syria, many say, has an air defense network that could pose a risk to Western aircraft. Any strike would have to be much wider and less focused, since it would have to include taking out the entire Syrian air defense network.
It has been additionally speculated that Syria’s armed capabilities in general mean that no amount of air power would be completely sufficient to force Syrian President Bashar Assad to cease hostilities, and that ground troops would be required – which, post interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is close to anathema in the West.
Wider aerial bombing operation and ground troops deployment escalate costs dramatically. Escalating costs can also greatly impact the economy at home – something that, unless highly empathetic to the cause, most Westerners are loath to do.
The film Hotel Rwanda made this point most poignantly when a UN officer explained to the main Rwandan protagonists that the originally promised international help will not come because no one in the West actually cares about Africa.
Another possible consideration is whether intervention is actually taking sides in an internal civil war – where helping the victims could lead to religious extremists’ rise to power. However, this didn’t stop the West when the military power and cost needed to intervene were relatively low.
So until a tipping point is reached, where the world is more willing to shed blood and treasure to protect citizens in third-world nations from genocide, maybe the phrase “never again” should be amended to the more honest: “Never long as it isn’t too dangerous, costly and in Africa.”